How virtual reality can help us understand how we think

by Marc Wilson / 17 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Virtual reality helps us understand

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When you're flying through the air like superman in virtual reality, chances are you'll brace for impact at landing.

Imagine you’re sitting down. In front of you is someone facing away but who looks like you. You can’t see their face, but they’re wearing what looks like a bulky set of glasses. Then a person moves into your field of vision, behind the “other” you. In each hand they’re holding a plastic rod – similar to a whiteboard marker. Simultaneously, they poke one rod towards your chest and the other at the chest of the person in front.

In fact, the person in front doesn’t just look like you, they are you. And they’re wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles. What you’re seeing is an image transmitted from a camera positioned behind you, so you’re looking at yourself through the camera’s eyes. The person with the rods is Henrik Ehrsson, from the brain, body and self laboratory at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Most people in this situation will have something akin to an out-of-body experience – they will experience viewing themselves being poked with a stick, but at a distance. Ehrsson first reported this in 2007, and it opened a toybox of ideas for people interested in studying how we experience the world, using the tools of VR.

VR is a big part of why I recently built a computer. By “built”, I mean my 14-year-old son and I bought the bits and rearranged them until it worked. I’m using it to write this.

The lad had been saving hard to buy a VR set-up to plug into our home computer. But just as he was on the threshold of having enough cash, a check of the requisite specifications told us we didn’t have a computer that could run the things. So, we’ve now spent pots of money on a computer that will run VR, but there’s no money left to buy it.

Researcher Henrik Ehrsson.

If I’d just waited, the lad could have got his virtual reality experience much more cheaply by visiting the VR lab at Victoria University of Wellington. The lab sits under the broader umbrella of the fancily monikered cognitive and affective neuroscience lab – fancy words for thoughts, emotions and brains. The VR set-up is the brainchild of Matt Crawford and Gina Grimshaw.

VR is just a recent example of how we can find a use for many a tool to help us understand how we tick. I won’t talk about Crawford and his colleagues’ plans for this, but I can tell you from my own experience that VR is extremely powerful.

For example, imagine you’re flying through the air, superperson-like, and coming in for a landing. You know rationally that if you suddenly drop out of the sky, it’s not really a problem, but still the ancient lizardy part of your brain is screaming DON’T FALL. As you approach the ground, your knees will, I kid you not, brace for impact, even though your intellect is pooh-poohing the whole thing.

What this speaks to is the primacy of our sensations over the thinking machinery that uses the information we get from our eyes, ears, etc. In this example, your eyes tell you that you’re falling, and this is difficult to override.

Fans of evolutionary psychology will, of course, point out that real situations involving a threat to survival probably aren’t helped by stopping to think it all through. If you stop (or perhaps don’t even start) running from a sabre-toothed cat, you get eaten. It’s a survival mechanism, and it reflects how hard-wired our senses are into the fight-or-flight response. Nature really doesn’t trust us to do the right thing if we stop to think about it.

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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